Sev­ered selves

PAAFF 2020: Takeshi Kushida’s Woman of the Photographs’

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2 minute read
What will we do to control how others see us? Itsuki Otaki and Hideki Nagai in ‘Woman of the Photographs.’ (Image courtesy of PAAFF.)
What will we do to control how others see us? Itsuki Otaki and Hideki Nagai in ‘Woman of the Photographs.’ (Image courtesy of PAAFF.)

The psychological drama Woman of the Photographs is an enticing selection for the 13th annual Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival. This bold vision from writer/director Takeshi Kushida starts confidently, with patience and alluring characters, but eventually the film falls prey to a forced aesthetic and a convoluted narrative.

The film follows Kai (Hideki Nagai), a silent and solitary photographer whose Groundhog Day-like routine changes when he meets Kyoko (Itsuki Otaki), a ballerina and social-media influencer. Their relationship escalates after he photographs her and photoshops a nasty scar on her chest.

The real you

Woman of the Photographs investigates identity and self-worth through photographs and social media. The film explores the behavioral extremes of our self-perception, how the lengths we'll go to so that others will perceive us in a certain way can border on delusional and grotesque. These relevant themes also draw out the potential psychological harm caused by our incessant desire for external validation. But despite the patient unpacking of these existential complexities, the narrative ultimately feels incomplete. This is most notable in the film’s male praying mantis motif. That insect’s inevitable sexual demise is supposed to parallel the relationship of Kai and Kyoko, but the analogy never feels fully realized or embraced by the protagonists.

Distracting visions

The film’s mystique comes from its tempo and sonic space. The amount of quiet in the film is refreshing; the silence fills with a symphony of accentuated diegetic sound, providing a tranquil ASMR effect. There is a meditative quality to the repetition of images and sounds of daily life in Japan and of Kai’s duties as a photographer. That cinematic simplicity pairs well with the complexity and mystery of Kai and Kyoko’s dynamic internal journeys. However, there are disruptions of recurring surreal dreamlike sequences that contain obnoxious thematic takeaways. Instead of heightening the moment, these halt what is most compelling for the sake of interesting images, making the feature feel, at times, like an experimental student film.

Through a culturally specific lens, Woman of the Photographs ruminates on themes and relationships that are worth pondering. It is unfortunate that the character exploration is upstaged by bold yet cliché art direction and cinematography that seems inimical to the story. There is a place for surreal and experimental aesthetic visions, but if it is at the expense of character narratives, it results in a film that feels unhinged.

Image description: A still from the movie Woman of the Photographs shows actors Itsuki Otaki and Hideki Nagai playing Kyoko and Kai. In blurry indoor surroundings, Kyoko embraces the shirtless Kai, looking over his shoulder into the camera. Kyoko has long dark hair and she wears a red long-sleeved shirt.

What, When, Where

Woman of the Photographs. Written and directed by Takeshi Kushida. Screening virtually as part of the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival, running through November 15, 2020. Find the full lineup at PAAFF online.

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